Find a mentor to bridge the gap between the school and the job

The first job you get will often define your career. For every other job, you will be able to present the biography, recommendation, and explanation of your experience. The first job is different. It defines your expertise, the kind of reputation you have and the path your career will take. Today I will talk from my personal knowledge and experience. I will not even send you to read any further. Stay with me in this one.

Why do I write this post?

I have three kids. They are not even in high school, but I already need to start planning their careers. Why? Because the first job you take is not so much influenced by your school, as it is influenced by extracurricular activities.

All the programmers I hire consistently claim that their first serious programming experience was when they were 14 years old. The marketing specialists I work with started selling stuff when they were 16 years old. The best project managers around came with significant military experience, often as helicopter pilots. The best cybersecurity guys I met dream about black FBI trucks since they were 16 years old, and the most successful of them were never caught.

The first job that defines us is not based on what we learned but on what we experienced growing up, so I want to expose my kids to the most educating experiences. I am not talking about space boot camps and chess clubs. Those are fine but they do not really define the careers for most of us. I am talking about meddling, promoting and making friends.

What are the best ways to find your first job?

The best first jobs are often high school positions and they are offered by bosses to their children. Being able at high school age to run quality assurance or sales, or code some basic stuff, opens the children to a very different way of absorbing what they learn at school. They come to the universities wiser. The information they learn already has some context. They often understand how each piece of knowledge can be applied. Instead of mastering passing the tests, they absorb the knowledge of their teachers. The mindset has a huge role in what we learn and how we learn it.

The next level of great jobs is student jobs, especially for advanced degrees. These jobs are often provided by the people who pursued the same degrees and now want their protegees from a similar background. Quite often to get the job, we discuss various teachers and strategies to pass certain courses. Ex graduates of our Universities are the only people who will appreciate us being in the top percentile in specific courses. Quite often the teachers of the hard courses will be selecting their new employees and will get the best pick. These jobs offer close and immediate mentorship by the best experts in the business.

The third kind of great jobs will be offered by people with similar background and hobbies. People who love music will tend to offer opportunities to great musicians. The poker players will understand the best ways to use the poker skills of their protegees. Those who love jeep travels will often discuss the job around a bonfire. Not every hobby gets a great fan club. Meditation or chess will probably not land you your next job. If you like shooting, the job offers you will get might be somewhat creepy. Learning advanced science may help you to get a university scholarship, but will hardly help in your first job. So your hobbies are kind of important.

My first jobs

It is possible to have more than one first jobs. I had several first jobs. What is a job anyway?

When I was a child I played chess for money and in one game often won more than my father’s month’s salary. Once we immigrated we had nothing. So the family literally had to sweep school floors to get enough money to get some food. Fortunately, this lasted only a couple of months. I never had to work for food since. The next bad job was at the university during the first year. The professors went on strike for three months, so I got bored and my mother found me some low paying job in deliveries with manual labor involved.

Once I started to get more professional knowledge, I started to earn more. The next job I got was provided by my mother’s friend and it was in the QA department of a hardware manufacturer. Then I had short teaching experience at the University, and then I was drafted.

The military practice in some units opens you up to many possibilities. I was a project manager for some technical infrastructures. After the military, I could choose any job I wanted. I decided to pursue a PhD and work in a startup company. The job was actually offered to another student of the same professor and he recommended me for the position. At that point, I was making more money than most people I know. I bought an apartment and tried to start my own company.

That was a failure. Entrepreneurship experience is something that closes doors, as many managers are intimidated by it. Entrepreneurs are a bit unpredictable. So I needed to find the first job once again. This time I used my military connections to get an entrepreneurial position in a VC company. From that point, each job was a sort of natural continuation of my previous job.

Do the grades actually matter?

I was always a straight-A student and I got several scholarships. Did my grades help me find a great job? In a way they did. Ph.D. degrees and government jobs can be a fair game, where the person with the highest grades can pick his position. Working with better people provides access to exclusive opportunities. The grades did not help me to get jobs in big companies or small startups, they also did not help me before I almost had my degree. The did not hurt either.

When I hire people I often see their grades. I will not hire someone with a C- average to do an engineering job. But I will not prefer someone because he finished a better University or because his average is A+ and not A-. When I was a child I was always asked by everyone to get the best grades possible, but there was a catch: I was always considered for academic positions. Once I found that academic research does not motivate me, the game changed and I was not prepared.

With my kids I try to build “ninja guru rockstar developers”, focusing on diverse and eye-opening experiences.

Where I push my children

I do not exactly believe in pushing, but rather in provoking interest. After all, children want to communicate with their parents and mentors. If we are interested in something, they will also eventually become interested.

My first focus for my children is music. I do not really want my children to be rock stars. Instead, I use music as a metaphor for teamwork, engineering, promotion, gamification and everything else I want to introduce to my children. Some of the best salespeople I know have musical experience. They have great stamina, serious discipline, no stage fear and instinctive understanding of what their audience is looking for.

I want my children to do some sports too. The boys tried judo for several years. They should not be afraid of competition or sweat. Swimming is a great sport, as it allows the athlete to focus on his thoughts and do some mental work without the risk of injuries which exists in other sports. Horse riding is also great, as a cool way to build leadership skills.

Another emphasis is on programming and marketing experience. My kids try to film and edit videos and build simple games, trying to understand the tricky mechanics of success and failure as influencers.

Different skills build up different metaphors and allow to see the world in a different light.

How to look for the mentor?

A great mentor can offer a young person not only a good position but also a role model and friendly guidance through intricate office politics. Sometimes we can address a mentor directly when the mentor we want happens to be our family member or a teacher. More often we use opportunities, getting the offers rejected by others. And commonly we do nothing at all, waiting for the mentor to approach us first. The person who hires us is often a better mentor than the person who happens to be our manager, so there is always some tension between the two role models.

Having common interests and experiences is actually very instrumental in communication with the mentors, as the metaphors and behavior models are based on prior experiences. The richer our background, the easier it becomes to communicate with others.

Then we often have an opportunity to get another first job, in a different position which requires a different skillset. The decision to take it or to pass is often based on the persona of the mentor.

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